Levon Helm: 1940-2012

The Band's drummer dies of cancer at 71.

Levon Helm, the musician and, latterly, actor, best known as the drummer of The Band, has died of cancer in New York. He was 71. Helm was the only American in a band of Canadians obsessed with the mythology of the American South. He was born and raised in Marvell, Arkansas, a small town in the Mississipi delta.

Helm grew up around musicians (his father, a sharecropper, was a weekend guitarist) and in high school, he formed his first band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. As a teenager he entered the orbit of the R&B artist Ronnie Hawkins (himself Arkansas-born, though he made his name playing the club circuit north of the border in Ontario). Helm joined Hawkins's backing band, The Hawks, in 1958. It was here that he met the musicians with whom he'd eventually form The Band: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko.

The Hawks split from Hawkins in the early Sixties and toured for a while as "Levon and the Hawks". Hawkins recognised that his talented young charges "wanted to play heavier music than that barroom stuff". Things got even heavier when Helm and Robertson were recruited by Bob Dylan to play some live shows after his "electric" heresy at the Newport Festival in July 1965. Dylan eventually recruited the other three Hawks and the outfit set out on tour. They made a noise of a kind that had not been heard before. The writer Greil Marcus called them, "without exception or qualifications" the greatest rock 'n' roll band he'd ever seen. "If you weren't there," he wrote, "it will be difficult to convey the visual power of their performance", or the "stately, extravagant, and visionary" sound they created.

Marcus's view wasn't widely held, however, and Helm, in particular, soon tired of the ritual execration of folk purists that the Dylan and his band had to endure each night. Helm quit the Hawks in November 1965, saying: "For the first time, I couldn't stick to my policy, which was to whistle while I worked." The drummer was reunited with the group now known as The Band in October 1967, by which time they were holed up in a house in Woodstock in upstate New York, where they'd been exploring the traditional musics of their adopted home - country, bluegrass and the blues.

Their first album Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, to a rapturous critical reception. Helm's sinuous drumming was the cynosure of The Band's sound. Ronnie Hawkins, quoted in Barney Hoskyns's wonderful book Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, put it very well: "When Robbie brought me the tape I said, Goddamn, that's country as hell, but it's funky country, I like it . . . Robbie got most of the credit but Levon was the funk in the music."

He was also its soul, a kind of guiding star for Robertson's journey into the American mythos. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", on The Band's eponymous second album, which was also their masterpiece. In this song Helm is Virgil Caine, a Confederate survivor of an attack by Union cavalry during the American Civil War. Greil Marcus wrote: "The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our old oppositions, every American still shares this event ... The song is not so much about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carried a version of that event within himself."

In the video below, The Band performs "The  Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", with Helm singing and playing drums, at their valedictory concert in November 1976, captured on film by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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